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Show Notes

Picturing democracy

Working to build democracy isn’t always a pretty picture — and most of the time there is no picture at all. The lack of compelling visuals may contribute to the difficulty that we as changemakers face in demonstrating what we do and how we do it.

If you look in my photo folder, you’ll see countless pictures of people standing in front of a flipchart in a dimly lit room (yawn) or sitting next to each other talking (double yawn). This is the manner in which activism, political party assistance, and civic advocacy happens. It’s through dialogue, small group discussions, planning, writing, reflection, collecting data, building lists, over and over again that democracy building happens (most likely in stuffy, windowless rooms, usually accompanied with dry cookies and bad coffee). Can you picture it? This is where the architecture of change is charted.

Which is why I was delighted that the work that Leah Kimothi (Episode 3) and Carla Chianese (Episode 2) did on behalf of IFES to interrupt violence was recognized recently. USAID highlighted eight photos that capture the essence of how partners with local change makers promote, protect and deepen democracy, human rights and governance around the globe. Kenya’s “White Ribbon” campaign was a finalist of the 2018 USAID/Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) photo contest, judged by a panel from USAID.

I love that Ms. Fanis Lisiagali, Director of Healthcare Assistance Kenya ,is pictured front and center marching her heart out. She is one of the long-standing grassroots leaders fighting against gender-based violence. I had the honor to work with her while overseeing and election and conflict program in Kenya in 2017. It’s a great photo that captures the spirit and perseverance of the women fighting for peace and justice.

And why is USAID trying to demonstrate their impact, anyway? Because most Americans don’t understand the value of democracy assistance. Most Americans are surprised to learn that foreign assistance is only about one percent of the total U.S. budget. Democracy assistance represents just 4 percent of foreign aid.

We need a PR campaign for democracy – stock full of photos and visual aids, and info graphics! It is only because of the work of citizens on the ground — through the development of global standards for civil society and governance, and by courageous leadership –  that there are more open societies across the world compared to 30 years ago.

As Ken Wollack, longtime director of the National Democratic Institute, pointed out in recent Congressional testimony

“When World War II ended, fewer than a dozen democracies stood as the Iron Curtain rose, military dictatorships proliferated, and colonialism sought to regain its footing. Major breakthroughs against those trends began with the so-called third wave of democratization which, since the 1970s, impacted more than 100 countries where people in every region of the world struggled against oppression and for government based on popular will.” He continued, “On the African continent, only four leaders since 1960 had retired voluntarily or left office after losing an election — that figure stands at nearly 50 since then. Democracy, freedom and dignity were not even part of the lexicon of the Middle East. And Soviet communism, which extended to the borders of Western Europe, seemed deeply embedded.”

So, we have much to celebrate when we take the long view….and a lot to be worried about considering the short -term changes and challenges to democracy. According to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World Report 2018”, political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom. The basic tenets of democracy are being challenged today —including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—even in long-standing liberal democracies.

These are tough days, and even more are ahead. There is no shortage of problems. Yet there is also an abundance of solutions. We just don’t see the solutions as clearly as the problems. And if you can’t picture the way out, it’s hard to actualize it.

Thanks USAID for your support of democracy development, especially in light of both the external and internal problems you face. And thanks for helping us picture it a little more by honoring the photos of the ground warriors in the fight for more open, just and inclusive societies. I will do my part by committing to capturing less flip chart training photos and more dynamic change agents in action!  

More on Episode 2 with Carla

I absolutely love this episode, partly because I have such affection for Carla – her optimism and energy and her commitment to equality and access in elections. But also because we go into details about how you do advocacy around elections and fight fake news and misinformation, a burning topic in the world today. This episode is rich with information and nuggets of wisdom – about what behavioral campaigns are, grassroots activism around elections, and why “hell yes” she’s a feminist. Carla also talks openly about the difficulties that sometimes come with motherhood in a multi-cultural context.

This is a perfect photo that sums up Carla and what she does best – listens deeply and intently. The process of listening (with sincerity and deep interest in whomever she is talking to) is what enables her to build inclusion into all of her work – through civic engagement projects, with election management bodies, and through digital media campaigns.

What do we mean by inclusion? You will have to listen to the show to find out!

Many of the wonderful women I have had the privilege to work with are often behind the scenes, quietly and deligently supporting young people, other women, and helping form the building blocks of politics in their communities. Part of my goal is to take the ‘behind the scenes’ women and put a spotlight on who they are and how they go about their work. We all have a story to tell. Thanks Carla for sharing yours!

But it does beg the question, why are so many women behind the scenes?

It’s part of the inequality equation, unfortunately. For several reasons:

1. If an interview is on TV, women have to look a way that society will accept us as experts. We may not have the time, energy or interest in doing this. I conduct media trainings for women. In these trainings we spend a lot of time on what not to wear. It’s unfortunate, but it comes with the territory.

2. A lot of change makers are simply too busy to pause and reflect publicly about their work. Let’s be real, even in the most gender-balanced marriages, a lot of the unpaid, household work, falls on the shoulders of women, who are often mothers. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gboweeworked with men in her country to get them to account for the unpaid work of their wives, by putting a price tag on everyday duties. It was transformative for the men. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 after turning a grassroots women’s movement into the force that ended her country’s civil war and eventually led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president on the African continent. Gbowee also has a brilliant idea for demonstrating the value of unpaid housework. Here’s a calculator that puts a dollar figure on the value of unpaid work. Every country and currency should have one!

3. The “lean in” factor. I have too many thoughts about Lean In for one blog post. To keep it brief: Sheryl Sandberg brought some important truths forward. Women’s assertiveness, or lack thereof, can be part of the problem. For sure ladies, we have to step up and be in the spaces where we are sometimes pushed from. But we have to also ask, why are we being pushed from those places to begin with? And how do we deal with the conditions that require women to lean in — be better, be smarter, and strive for perfection? This is also part of the gender inequality equation. I love what Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011 had to say about it, Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg).

So that’s my rant for the day!

We are the sum of our parts – for many women that means part advocate, part wife, mother, leader, listener. Some days we lean in. Some days we recline. I am so appreciative of Carla’s honesty in this episode, and willingness to engage with me on this journey of mine in Kenya, and with this podcast, and share a bit of her story.

As for what’s next with the podcast…I’m out of Africa these days (with a less dramatic exit than Karen Blixen), but it doesn’t stop me from continuing to engage with the many women I met along that path and try to tell a bit of the stories from this region of the world.

Moving back to Istanbul after a year in Kenya, jumping into new countries and clients, and launching this podcast, puts me smack in the middle of a crazy amount of change. This week I conducted a strategy session with Syrians working on building community and dialogue, last week I was in Macedonia, and next week I’m off to Ukraine to help support campaigns for women’s participation in politics. I still have more stories to share from Africa, so check back here for new content and the chance to meet other change makers along the way!

The Journey Begins

So you want to start a podcast? Apparently everyone and their grandma seems to be on the path to a podcast these days. For me, it’s a brave new world. And one that is not without some complications. Working in international development you are expected to be behind the scenes. This is perfectly reasonable given the sensitivities of the countries we are operating in and the delicate diplomacy required to ensure support for (and funding of) democracy development. But this approach is antiquated, and adds to confusion about how to fight for democracy, and why it’s important to do so.  

As we see the world shift on its axis with the rise of alienating and exclusionary populism and the resurfacing of dictator tendencies, even in Western democracies, I have to ask myself, what role am I playing? Am I doing all I can to shine a light on the change I believe in? If “democratic development” is so behind the scenes, maybe we are part of the problem.

I’m launching this podcast to give voice, literally, to women’s participation and activism, one facet of the democracy development necessary to get us out of this deepening hole, which, I would point out, we are in partly due to the crisis of masculinity and lack of gender equality (more on that nugget later).

I am privileged to have gotten access to some of the most brave and wise women in the world, working hard to improve the lives of their country and communities. I have worked side-by-side with them, learned from them, challenged them. But this is the first time I am creating a product from this experience for a wider, public audience. So bear with me as we figure it out together.

I am going to weave a bit of my experience and observations about this work into topics that are relatable, and core to who we are and what change is needed across the globe to do better, be better, and to fight for what I believe is possible. I believe that there is a better world for women and girls to be created – no matter the cultural constructs that prevent this, or the discomfort of the leaders of international development who prefer that we navigate this work more quietly, behind the scenes.

It’s time ladies, for us to be heard and for our ideas and experience to be forefront. Enough being behind the scenes, let’s start speaking loader and more boldly about who we are and what we believe. I hope you will join me on this journey!

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